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Traditional Labor Laws Apply to the Non-traditional Office

September 1, 1994
At-home work can confer many benefits to all involved and is an excellent solution for many work situations. However, it also can give rise to potential problems in complying with wage-and-hour laws and health-and-safety regulations.

The Department of Labor takes the position that an employer that "suffers or permits" an employee to work more than 40 hours in a week must pay overtime. That can be true even if employers don't authorize the overtime and make it clear to at-home workers that their job is listed for straight time only. Usually enforcement agencies hold that if there's no proof to the contrary, whatever the employee claims is sufficient proof to warrant a judgment for back pay and penalties. And, workers have as long as two—and in some cases three—years to claim these wages.

To reduce the likelihood of wage-and-hour claims by at-home workers, employers should:

  1. Establish and enforce methods for monitoring work done at home.
    Keep accurate records proving what hours are worked. This can be done by having a verifiable system for employees to self-report or certify in writing the hours they work each week, and by maintaining a paper trail to make sure employees can't come back later and claim they've worked additional hours.
  2. Educate operating managers and supervisors about the necessity for keeping workers within the 40-hour workweek.
    Employers need to ensure that supervisors don't tell their workers to "get the work done regardless of the time it takes," or "process 75 claims each day" without considering that assignments may take longer for certain workers.
  3. Use such technology as time clocks, or other equipment that records hours.
    Time expended on behalf of the employer for preliminary and follow-up work should be counted as well.
  4. Give employees explicit written directions not to work more than 40 hours without prior written supervisory approval.
    Check with them to ascertain that they're not doing so.

Health-and-safety law compliance presents another set of problems. There's often the same potential in an at-home office for injuries resulting from repetitive motion, use of hazardous chemicals or lifting as in the traditional workplace. And, because these injuries occur without the witnesses that may be present in a traditional office, workers' compensation claims are more difficult to police. The situation is ripe for fraudulent claims.

Minimal steps should be taken to combat this problem, including imposing strict reporting requirements. Require that all injuries be reported immediately, and request specific information about how the injury occured and what the symptoms are to make verification easier.

Lastly, employees and their employers need to watch out for exposure to third-party injury claims. At-home workers' negligence and intentional acts while employed can make employers liable for damages. Most, if not all, problems can be minimized with proper forethought. Identification of risks and planning to maximize compliance are a must. These usually are areas of responsibility for HR managers. Therefore, companies planning telecommuting programs should ensure that HR considerations don't lag behind the technological focus of such change.

Personnel Journal, September 1994, Vol.73, No. 9, p. 75.